Both times Illinois had the “best” college basketball team in the country, I was in the building to watch the Illini not win the national championship.
The first time was just some sick joke akin to being around Cardinals fans all the time. That was in 1989, when I had to watch Michigan — sort of the Niedermeyer frat guy of Big Ten sports — complete some fairytale run because the coach who led the Wolverines to a pair of resounding losses to the Flyin’ Illini inexplicably thought Arizona State was a better job than U-M. So a guy who can coach, Steve Fisher, took over in time for the NCAAs, and the gust of fresh air blew the heretofore underachieving Wolverines all the way to the title.
Not important to today’s discussion.
The second time, you all know, was in 2005, and I was charged with writing a column off the title game. When North Carolina had won, with a rather nondescript team for its powerhouse program, and Illinois had not, with a once-in-a-generation team for its never-quite-blueblood program, regret should have been the dominant emotion.
The column, however, talked about how we couldn’t be mad at the Illini because a few shots didn’t go in. They had come back from 13 down at halftime (pretty sure it was 13), tied it, and all-America guards had good looks from 3 in the waning moments. The shots just didn’t go in.
Now, as time goes on, regret rears its head. It’d be really nice to no longer be the “best program without a national title.”
You remember that Rashad McCants — shirtless, for some reason — had the gall to dis Deron Williams in the postgame handshake. And you know, of course, that nary a GPA on the floor in white that night was legit, and no one is sure where McCants, Sean May, Ray Felton or Marvin Williams play in the NBA anymore, if at all.
And if you’re me, you’d rather have been 2005 Illinois than 2005 North Carolina.
This isn’t sour grapes. I know they have the banner. Not trying to take it from them.
I just know that Dee Brown resonates a decade later. And Deron Williams is a dream. And that 29-0 start with all that passing and all those road wins, and the record-tying 37 wins in a year, and the Arizona comeback in the regional final that Big Ten Network still can’t replay enough … it’s all a life experience, an indelible memory, and it’s not different in any appreciable way in my brain because a bully of a program had a few more points on the final night.
Which leads this tale, at long last, to the 2014 Peoria Notre Dame football team.
Be clear, there is no parallel of cheesiness or malfeasance in the conqueror of Notre Dame. Lemont has not sold its soul to winning in any way resembling what we know of U-M or UNC sports. Lemont is simply a public high school from the town where Cog Hill is, that has a marvelous team and coach, and came to Peoria and proved it.
Lemont 32, Notre Dame 25. Pot’s right, as my fellow reporter Lonnie Schwindenhammer likes to declare at a poker game. Correct winner, correct score, no disputes here.
The parallel is with the fallen. I can feel already how I’ll remember these Irish in 10 years, and the feeling is good. Much like the mark Richwoods made in three straight years of mammoth home playoff wins on Kendrick Foster’s watch, I will remember the wins. In Richwoods’ case, I can barely recall who beat them each year.
In Notre Dame’s, I will recall the out game, because it was the dogfight my son Tommy and I have wanted to see all year. Because we know these kids, and we knew that while a dozen blowout wins are nice, their true excellence could not be displayed until they were pushed.
Let’s start with Andy Shadid. Can we agree he’s the greatest thing ever to happen to Notre Dame football? Do we need to scan the 27 years of the school to declare that? Please.
Tommy offered the observation on the morning of the Lemont game that Andy is still getting better. Can’t argue with that. In week two of the playoffs, he had a career high of 263 yards (I think; I’m not looking up any facts, because I’m going to act like all the other bloggers now).
The next week, the opponent is way better, and Shadid drops five touchdowns on East St. Louis. None of those scoring runs were as special as one that I know I’ll remember in my mind’s eye for years: a scamper for about 18 yards, maybe 20 some (again, specifics … don’t need ‘em). It was at a point of the game when ESL had tied it and its crowd was out-cheering the home side and ND was reeling on the field.
Andy was down after about 2 yards. But no. Ran backward for a few steps, then gang-tackled after a gain of maybe 8. Only getting started. Now he breaks free and is re-engaged by two tacklers, and with the ball threatening to pop out, carries them several strides down his own team’s sideline. I don’t know if a foursome of ESL tacklers ultimately got him to the ground or he decided a fumble would be too critical then so he lived to fight another down.
That’s half-facetious on the going down on purpose. But it’s possible. Because in addition to being the most talented player on every field he ever ran out on, Shadid is that special star athlete who is more locked in mentally than anyone else, too.
His run against ESL changed the mood in the entire stadium. Soon, ND had a 35-point second half and a 22-point win.
Against Lemont, he went to his coach and demanded he get the ball after a fumble by a teammate left Notre Dame in a 19-7 hole while its star had far less than his proper share of touches.
Next series? Seven straight Shadid runs — 8, 8 and 8 yards to start. Suddenly an Irish O-line that wasn’t moving a stellar Lemont front was able to produce holes. This time Shadid had changed the mood of the huddle first, then the stadium.
A Mount Rushmore prep athlete for me, and I’ve seen 40 years of them. A lifelong mental image of Shadid’s unique, into-the-middle-of-the-field cuts (everyone else seeks sidelines) is augmented now by this ESL run, this Lemont series and his interception with 1:31 left that gave his team a chance to overcome a two-touchdown deficit over the last 3 minutes.
They didn’t quite do it, and I know it matters to them, because they wanted to win state. But it doesn’t matter to me.
Because I remember running into Darren Hurst at Haddad’s (the grocery) four-plus years ago, and him making sure Tommy was going to Notre Dame and going out for football. Because we have a special group, Darren said, too classy to point out that his son, Jake — the single best linebacker I have seen in Peoria, save possibly his cousin, Nick Mangieri — was a cornerstone of that special.
Jake was unforgivably snubbed this week when the all-state teams came out. Tommy told me he gave Jake sort of, what, condolences? And Jake said, “I’m not worried about me. I just feel bad for Andy.”
Unimaginably, Shadid was left off an all-state team for which he is the obvious captain.
Team after team drops the cliche that they’re not worried about who gets the credit. Hurst’s words — and I know him enough to know there was nothing fake about them — are living it.
They are why this Notre Dame team is burned in my lifetime tapestry of sports watching. Brandon Vonachen, David Shadid and DeMarco Washington would be a very righteous trio of three best players on a team. They fell in line behind the legendary (and they will be legendary; give it time) Shadid/Hurst duo.
Guys like Austin Swanson, Ben Barkley, Jordan Thierer, George Rothan, JT Jackson-Hohmann, Jack Fiddes and Forbes meant that Darren Hurst, who always knows what he’s talking about, by the way, knew what he was talking about in the coffee/cereal aisle in West Peoria on some 2010 day.
So trailblazing was the Class of ’15, in fact, that Notre Dame was a victim of its own success. A school infamous for never being able to have football remotely keep pace with soccer and cross country in the fall found itself in Class 6A because success from the previous two seasons, with these kids a major part of it, made the IHSA multiply ND’s enrollment to the max. They do that to football “powers,” with no regard for irony.
Whine if you will about private schools’ advantage in football playoffs, and the evidence is ample. But non-recruiting Notre Dame and its 787 students just lost to a school of 1,401.
CLICHE ALERT: They didn’t really lose. They ran out of time and downs, didn’t advance. I realize they keep score at these things, and Lemont deservedly is headed to Champaign.
But I remember Haddad’s, and theorizing with Darren Hurst that this class could do something special, something Notre Dame has not seen.
We can all agree that box was checked.
They went there wanting to be memorable. They’re done now. And they achieved indelible.
— Bill Liesse